Recent Comments


    Virginia Woolf: Lyricist of Feminism

    rainbowguyIn the fading days of Edwardian England, a circle of artists and authors, soon to be known as the Bloomsbury Group, became famous for a practical joke. Dressed as a delegation of Abyssinian dignitaries, they deceived the English Royal Navy into giving them a red carpet tour of the HMS Dreadnought, flagship of the British home fleet, then docked at Weymouth. When their ruse was exposed, newspapers all over the United Kingdom published photographs of them in full disguise. Among the group was Adeline Virginia Stephen, disguised as a bearded man.

    It would not be the last time that the woman who became Virginia Woolf crossed the barriers of convention or gender conformity. All her life, she continued to shock the public about “the state of being male or female” and the social and cultural roles dictated by sexual patriarchy. Born into a family of eminent Victorians on January 25, 1882, Woolf grew up in a world where a woman’s place was in the home. She essentially raised and educated herself, reading through her father’s “large and unexpurgated library.” Because he was a founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, she met many of the leaders of Victorian literary society, who inspired her at an early age to become a writer.


    In 1911, the author, yet unpublished, moved into a house in Bloomsbury, a neighborhood near the British Museum, with her brother Adrian and sister Vanessa. Relatives and friends, who found her lifestyle too Bohemian and unconventional, were scandalized, especially when the home became the center of a group of intellectuals that included economist John Maynard Keynes and artist Duncan Grant, who were lovers; novelist E. M. Forster, open to close friends, closeted to everyone else; art critic Clive Bell; artist Roger Fry, for whom Vanessa left Bell before leaving him for Grant; writer Lytton Strachey, openly homosexual; and Leonard Woolf, whom she would wed in 1912.

    Virginia and Leonard Woolf remained married and affectionate until she died on March 28, 1941; in a 1937 diary entry she noted, “Love-making—after 25 years can’t bear to be separate…And our marriage so complete.” Even so, she was intimate with women throughout her life. Her deepest relationship was with Vita Sackville-West, whom Woolf felt was “a real woman. Then there is some voluptuousness about her; the grapes are ripe; and not reflective.” Both avoided categorizing their relationship as lesbian. Vita preferred being known as a “Sapphist” and Woolf “wanted to avoid all categories,” especially one defined by sexual behavior.

    Beginning with The Voyage Out (1915), her first published work, Woolf experimented with new literary devices, including unusual narrative perspectives and free association. In Mrs. Dalloway (1925), her fourth work of fiction, she used original novelistic structures to blur the line between dream and reality, flowing from the conscious to the unconscious, from the imagined to the real, and from the past to the present. Many consider the book—which raised issues of feminism, female stereotyping, sexual and economic repression, mental illness, and homosexuality—one of the most important written in the last hundred years.


    A Room of One’s Own (1929), her extended essay about the impact of sexism on creativity, was the first major feminist critique. Why had so few female writers produced authentic works of genius, she asked, famously answering, “A woman must have £500 a year and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” At a time when the average household income in Britain was £165 and a typical home was five rooms, many criticized Woolf for seeming to be concerned only with the small group of British women who, in fact, could have a room of their own and time to use it.

    Actually, she was expressing the reality of almost all women: their minority status; their poverty and lack of privacy; their lack of access to education, freedom of movement and intellectual and sexual expression; and the gender and sexual identities forced upon them by society. In To the Lighthouse (1927), she raised the additional issue of a woman’s inequality within her marriage. She also wrote extensively on women’s exclusion from careers in academia, the church, law, and medicine, later expanding her feminist critique to include patriarchy and militarism.

    “Language is wine upon the lips,” she said, but it was much more than that for her. She became a major innovator in using words to share her “extraordinary insights into consciousness and the darkness just outside its limits.” With intense lyricism and stylistic virtuosity, her nonlinear, free form prose style created worlds that deconstructed and penetrated human thought processes and experience.

    More than anything else, she showed us our own nature and complexities, that “behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that…all human beings (are) connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art…We are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.” With “her singleness of vision and in her handling of words,” she created an extraordinary oeuvre to be read for “the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment.”

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.